Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed"

In the midst of deciding I was going to be reading a lot of fiction, we took a family trip to the library. Browsing the general fiction display stacks while Aimée looked for some children's books about the Chinese New Year, I managed to find a few books of interest to me (the display stacks at the library are packed with all kinds of commercial crap and Booker-style "literary" fiction; I'm impressed they have anything at all in those stacks that I want to read: most of the good stuff, when the library has it at all, needs to be retrieved by a librarian), including John Williams' much-blogged-about novel, Stoner. I read the novel soon thereafter.

I'd been reading about Stoner for years; since it was reissued in 2006 by NYRB (originally published in 1965), it seems to have been able to consistently find new readers, many of whom have blogged about it. Everyone says much the same thing: the prose is of remarkable clarity, it is old fashioned, yet beautiful, even perfect. I can confirm that these things are true. It is at times enormously sad, yet not finally a sad or depressing novel.

This is the novel's opening paragraph:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
I've mentioned more than once that recently fiction has often felt like an imposition. I'd open a novel, or begin a short story, and the opening paragraphs filled me with some despair. The very idea of having to learn about characters and settings and to begin following some kind of plot seemed profoundly boring to me. And yet, this feeling had often come over me, for years, when I attempted to read more conventional fiction. If a novel, written in the third person, began with a reference to a year, and specifics about a place, my eyes would glaze over. And yet here, I wanted to read on beyond this paragraph, felt pulled into the next paragraph and the next. Perhaps it was Stoner's death being introduced in the second sentence, and the whole arc being circumscribed at the outset: there will be no adventures or out-sized experiences for this character. The life is small, the events in it matter little to the wide world. This isn't unusual for a novel either, though, so why do I care this time? I read on, and I have to admit that the apparent smoothness of the prose carried me forward, more or less unperturbed. What's the difference?

Perhaps it's the quiet. Stoner is a quiet book about a small life, a man who is quietly heroic in his way. He'd entered college, at his father's suggestion, to study agriculture, expecting to graduate and return home with knowledge useful for his family's farm. But he never does return home, stray visits aside, staying at the university his entire adult life. Along the way he is married, has a daughter, an affair, various conflicts at the university, dies. Such material sounds utterly conventional and unpromising. It is in fact riveting. And the prose, in its precision, and in the manner in which Williams handles the ups and downs of Stoner's life, allows for some quiet contemplation of concerns that are very similar to my own. Here, for example, is a passage from later in that first chapter:
"But don't you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Sloane said softly.

"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"

"It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
This passage spoke to me; would that I'd had someone able to so directly tell me such a thing about myself. Though perhaps it simply took me too long to find that which I love. William Stoner's fallen in love with literature. He writes a dissertation, which he later expands into a book:
His expectations for his first book had been both cautious and modest, and they had been appropriate; one reviewer had called it "pedestrian" and another had called it "a competent survey." At first he had been very proud of the book; he had held it in his hands and caressed its plain wrapper and turned its pages. It seemed delicate and alive, like a child. He had reread it in print, mildly surprised that it was neither better nor worse than he had thought it would be. After a while he tired of seeing it; but he never thought of it, and his authorship, without a sense of wonder and disbelief at his own temerity and at the responsibility he had assumed.
But that's it, for his own writing. Fortunate to not be subject to today's mindless publish-or-perish nonsense, he publishes nothing else. He does later get an idea for another, probably better book, and begins working towards writing it, but, frustratingly, events in his life conspire to prevent him from actually doing so, and before long it no longer seems essential that he bother. The quiet equanimity with which Stoner accepts his situation, and his responsibility for it, is one of the sad pleasures of this novel. His life could have been different, overall happier; he knows it, but it is his own, and that's enough.

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